September 24, 2010

Clap Your Hands For Wallace Johnson

As I noted before, Ponderosa Stomp #9 hits New Orleans this weekend. From the HOTG angle, the bookings that have got me ready to pony up a hunk my meager civil servant’s pay are three of the city’s fine, if nearly forgotten singers: Charles Brimmer, Wallace Johnson, and Willie West. As far as I know, only Mr. West is regularly active as a performer, and still recording! He’s had somewhat of a resurgence over the last year, at least on the other side of the Atlantic. But Brimmer and Johnson remain obscure, and deserving of more attention. Lil’ Buck and the Top Cats from right here in Lafayette will be backing them up onstage. I’ll also be interested in hearing Ms Joyce Harris, who was one of the few artists to appear on Fun, Eddie Bo’s blip of a label back in the mid-1960s, and versatile multi-band leader, Earl Stanley. Another of my Gulf Coast faves, Barbara Lynn, will be there, too, along with many other worthy acts. Just gotta give props to the Stomp supporters and organizers, the Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau, for making all of it happen - not only the concerts, but the seminars, film series, and record show - and for having it on a weekend this year, meaning that I can go for the whole thing (though my schedule was probably not their main consideration!).

Of course, Willie West has been the subject of
a big feature here, as well as some updates; and I discussed Charles Brimmer and some of his music last month and had hoped to do one or two more by the weekend; but I ran out of time (see me post-Stomp). Before that, though, I've got to devote a segment to Wallace Johnson, as I haven’t done anything on him before.

* * * * *

Wallace appealed to me because he sang like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, but not quite as bluesy. He had a great, emotive voice; when he sang you could feel his sincerity. - Harold Battiste, quoted in the notes to More Gumbo Stew.

My introduction to Wallace Johnson’s first recordings came via the release of the
Gumbo Stew CD series on Ace (UK) in 1993, which included the sides of his only single for AFO Records, plus two of his unissued tracks, all produced and arranged by Mr. Battiste, who we have been hearing a lot about lately for good reason. On first hearing, I was taken by Johnson’s distinctive voice, strong and controlled, yet easy on the ear. There is a pleasant personality to it that seems designed for making pop R&B records. Lee Dorsey is another local singer who had that kind of natural facility. But Johnson's additional ability to delve into deeper, more soulful material should have given him a competitive edge. As commercially viable as his voice seems to be, it remains a mystery to me why he, unlike Dorsey, has made precious few records in his life and never really had a sustained career as performer, either.

Major details of Johnson’s life and limited career are known because, fortunately for us fans and amateur researchers, Jeff Hannsuch interviewed him back in the late 1990s and did a short feature on the singer in The Soul of New Orleans. Most any information you’ll find about him, including most of what is here, is based on that source, though I have added a few other tidbits I’ve found along the way.

To summarize Hannusch, Johnson arrived in New Orleans in the late 1950s after a stint in the service, having grown up in Napoleonville, about an hour or so drive West of the city. His singing background was mainly church; and, as a teenager in the early 1950s, he got his inspiration to be a professional entertainer from seeing the great blues shouter, Roy Brown, perform. Other than some group singing he did while in the service, Johnson really had not performed much when he came to town in his early 20s, already married with children. So, to get some technical preparation for his goal of a singing career, he enrolled in Houston’s music school, which was located on North Claiborne Avenue near Esplanade, just a few steps outside of the historic and culturally rich
Treme neighborhood.

Not long thereafter, wanting to make a record, Johnson went to Imperial Records' main man in the city,
Dave Bartholomew, still the major producer and talent scout in town. For reasons unknown, Bartholomew was not interested in giving him a shot. So, Wallace tried the Specialty Records office, located upstairs in the same building that housed his school, and auditioned for Harold Battiste, who had been doing A&R for the California-based company. But Battiste had no choice but to decline, too, because Specialty was preparing to pull out of New Orleans. Instead, he told Johnson that, if he would bide his time, he could record for the new label Battiste was planning to start, to be run by and for local musicians and artists, All For One, AFO.

Once AFO got up and running in 1961, the partnership had an immediate #1 R&B hit on just their second release, “I Know”, by a young discovery,
Barbara George, who Jessie Hill had brought to them along with Lawrence ‘Prince La La’ Nelson. The first release, Nelson's "Getting Married Soon", also charted, making things look very promising for the company. Due to the flurry of activity that these successes entailed, and because of the many other artists they were signing, Johnson did not get a recording slot until 1962, cutting the impressive sides of his very first single, along with two other worthy tunes.

He told Hannusch that all four tracks were cut in one long, overnight session at the small studio Joe Ruffino had behind his offices at Ric and Ron Record, which Battiste had access to because he also worked for Ruffino as a producer/arranger; and the AFO house band played on numerous Ric and Ron recordings. That ensemble backed Johnson that night on all the tunes and was comprised of
the founders of the company: John Boudreaux on drums, Peter ‘Chuck’ Badie on bass, possibly Battiste on piano, Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler and Nat Perilliat on saxes, and Melvin Lastie or trumpet or cornet. Allen Toussaint, who knew all the players well and used some of them on his productions for Minit, was also there, although he did not play that night, according to Johnson.

“Clap Your Hands” (R. Richard)
Wallace Johnson, AFO 308, 1962
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

This is another one of those coulda-shoulda tunes that had all the ingredients of a hit except the one most necessary to the gamble, luck. What’s not to like about such a cleverly arranged, well-performed effort? After the opening, party-starting two bars of stand-alone, broken-up second-line drumming, Johnson joins in for the next eight, singing the first verse, then the horns hit hard on the turnaround, and the rest of the band comes in on the second verse. The remainder of the song lives up to the brilliantly engaging lead-in, piling hook upon hook. Battiste worked “Clap Your Hands” out of the ever-present New Orleans popeye groove of the period, but with enhancements. It’s a bit more upbeat, with emphatic, punchy horns, and great gospel-style piano comping, with everything playing off of Boudreaux’s fine proto-funk on the trap set. Dancing of some form or another is the default response to hearing this for the first or 500th time. And Johnson’s exuberant voice sounds so right, too, down to the howl at the fade - like he was born to sing it.

Reynauld (a/k/a Renald) Richard, described by Battiste as “kind of a hustler - you might call him a talent scout”, wrote “Clap Your Hands”, based on the children’s song, “If You’re Happy And You Know It”. His lyrics celebrate the love of a woman using expressions of joy from church, while the music was a happy hodgepodge of sing-song simplicity, gospel rave-up, and R&B bounce. That formula echoed an R&B classic that Richard had earlier co-written with Ray Charles,“I’ve Got A Woman”, which coupled lyrics about the charms of a woman to a gospel tune. In his talent scout mode, Richard had found Lee Dorsey singing to himself in an auto body shop, recognized his raw talent, and got him his start making records. So, Johnson's impressive take on Richard's number certainly seemed to bode well that he too could score a hit.

In addition of his vocal gift, Johnson also wrote the other three tracks he cut for AFO. “Peace Of Mind”, the B-side of #208, a mid-tempo quasi-waltz with more broken drumming patterns, allowed him to use sustain and precise melisma to effectively emote. Unreleased until the
Gumbo Stew CD series, “Private Eye”, a fairly standard popeye number with clever lyrics about hiring surveillance to keep track of his significant other, could have been a marketplace contender; while the straightforward, slower “A Love As True As Mine” was definitely standard-issue flip side material, though it he sang it well enough.

Bad timing was the simple undoing of Johnson’s recording debut. Although AFO had a national distribution deal with Sue Records, after they scored big with Barbara George, they hit a roadblock. In this oft told tale, Sue owner Juggy Murray conspired to lure George away, convincing her to end her contract with AFO and sign with him. Once he accomplished this in 1962, he dropped AFO’s distribution on a contractual technicality, depriving them of both their major seller and an outlet for their products to markets in the rest of the country. Of course Johnson was just one of many AFO artists who were casualties of this subterfuge, as the company could not be sustained on just local sales. AFO’s team cut their losses in 1963 and headed out West, leaving many tracks on the shelf, including Johnson’s.

Having moved back to his hometown soon after recording those tracks, Johnson started gigging regularly around the area. Only later did he learn of the fate of AFO. It would be several more years until he came back to New Orleans; and, when he did, in 1965, evidence points to him having recorded a one-off single, “Looking For Lee”/“True Love Was Never Meant For Me “, as
J. J.Wallace for the Booker label (#500/501), as noted by Sir Shambling, who provides audio of #501, a bluesy ballad with shaky accompaniment. It definitely sounds to me like it has Johnson’s voice on it. But of more significance, the singer made it a point to re-connect with Allen Toussaint, who he had met the night of his first recording session. In Bill Dahl’s fine notes to the Sundazed Get Low Down two-CD overview of Sansu productions of the 1960s, Johnson says that, at the time, he had a day-job driving a cement mixer in the city, and after work would often go over to Toussaint’s house, hang out, and lobby to get a record made.

Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn had just formed their new production company, Tou-Sea, soon to change names to Sansu, and were working with Lee Dorsey at the start of a string of his hits for the Amy label. They would also sign a number of other quality artists such as Betty Harris, Diamond Joe, and Eldridge Holmes. Toussaint kept the persistent Johnson in mind; and finally brought him in to record, cutting four tracks, three in April of 1967, with the other having been done the prior November. As Johnson pointed out to Hannsuch, his vocals were overdubbed onto music tracks that had been produced earlier, which was
the way Toussaint was rolling by that point. The songs, all written by Johnson, appeared on two singles for the in-house Sansu label, distributed by Bell Records.

“Something To Remember You By”
(Wallace Johnson)
Wallace Johnson, Sansu, 467, 1967
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

The top side of his lead-off single, “Something To Remember You By” had a sauntering, mid-tempo popeye-esque groove with pretty much a four to the bar drum pattern and some occasional subtle syncopation. The fairly standard arrangement and instrumentation benefited from Toussaint adding his own signature piano flourishes, linking the sound back to his work for Minit as well as to various of his more recent productions for Lee Dorsey. But his solo on the break was so low-key, it almost doesn’t register. To my mind, as decent as this production sounds, it was not an attention grabbing new start for Johnson, falling fairly short of the freshness and good energy of AFO’s “Clap Your Hands”. Johnson didn’t give himself much vocal range to work with, either. So, if I may humbly second-guess Toussaint/Sehorn here, I think they should have opted to plug the other side.

“If You Leave Me”
(Wallace Johnson)
Wallace Johnson, Sansu 467, 1967
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Getting past the somewhat deceptive intro, which sounds like a ballad is coming on, this tune really was pretty similar in pace and structure to “Something To Remember You By”; but Toussaint improved on the groove by having the drummer put the emphasis on the two and the four beats, opening a nice, hip-swinging pocket for everything to work from. Johnson got more into his vocal, too, giving it some juice, bending notes, and going up into his falsetto several times. As with the first song, I find the instrumental break, on organ this time, too understated (it's better on the ride-out). But, as a whole, I think this side had the edge in appeal over the one designated for radio play. Of course, your brain may decode it differently.

Any perceived advantage Sansu had over other local labels in getting it’s records distributed nationally did not work for this single, nor for many of their other releases, really. The reasons could be debated for over beers for days on end; but whether or not the wrong side got the push on #467, it did not take off. In 1968, Johnson’s second Sansu 45 (#476) “Baby Go Ahead”/
”I’m Grown”, was released and fared no better. I still don’t have the vinyl on that one. But I’ve heard all Johnson’s Sansu sides on the Sundazed set; and, if you don’t have them, you can at least hear “I’m Grown” via the YouTube link.

“Baby Go Ahead” seems to have been out of the same mold as “Something To Remember You By”; but despite a strange little broken up intro, it proved to have a stronger arrangement and delivery, with the ensemble pumping out the groove, Toussaint turning in a suitably tricked-out organ solo, and Johnson responding with some hard-nosed singing. I can see where they might have been going toward the drive of an Otis Redding number with that one; and while he is no Otis, Johnson certainly rose to the challenge. Meanwhile, “I’m Grown” casually shuffled back to popeye-land, and again didn’t offer a big range for Johnson to play with, but was still engaging as Toussaint tossed off some rolling piano professor action, and guitarist George Davis spiced it up with his dexterous string-bending.

After his lack of commercial impact on Sansu, Johnson’s career went quiet for about five more years. Then, in 1973, Sansu Enterprises brought him back for another 45 that was promisingly leased to a national label.

"I Miss You Girl" (Wallace Johnson)
Wallace Johnson, RCA 0177, 1973
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

"On My Way Back Home" (Allen Toussaint)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

At the time of this recording, Toussaint was producing at
a studio in Atlanta, GA, while the partnership’s new studio, Sea-Saint, was being finished at home. Johnson told Hannusch that he did a split session there with Aaron Neville, who cut vocals for the Mercury single that included “Hercules”. For Johnson’s half of the session, he sang two promising numbers, the mid-tempo “I Miss You Girl”*, his own composition, and "On My Way Back Home”, an effective ballad written by Toussaint, which came out on RCA and would be the final single of his career.

Johnson handled with ease this nice slice of Southern soul to which Toussaint's arrangement added touches of subtle syncopation and an instrumental interlude that lent the song a bit more substance. Generally speaking, as on this tune, the weak spot in Johnson's otherwise enjoyable writing efforts was that they came up short on the dynamics and structure needed to take them to the next level. Meanwhile, on the other side of this 45, Toussaint's rarely heard, melodic, gospel-influenced piece proved to be the perfect vehicle to bring out Johnson's emotive, resonant expressiveness.

While Neville’s “Hercules” had the Meters, or most of them, on the backing tracks, it is not exactly clear who played on Johnson’s sides. I suspect that, rather than the Meters, Toussaint probably used some local Atlanta talent who worked out of the studio, although, it sounds like his piano work. There may have been some other New Orleans players on hand as well; and I'd like to know. So, any further information most certainly will be appreciated.

When this record too failed to make waves, Johnson for the most part called it quits and moved back to the bayou, performing very little and working various regular jobs to keep house and home together. He did not return to New Orleans until later in life, after the passing of his wife, and again got the bug to record. In the mid-1990s, he had connected with some local musicians and asked his old friend, Toussaint, about the possibility of making a demo. In a telling indication of the man’s regard for Johnson, he not only gave him the go-ahead to use Sea-Saint for the project but even offered one of his songs. After hearing the result, Toussaint asked Johnson to be a part of the new NYNO label he was starting with a New York backer, soon thereafter producing Johnson’s classy CD,
Whoever’s Thrilling You, released in 1996. Containing mainly Toussaint songs, a few of Johnson’s, and one cover, it was critically well-received, but did not make Wallace Johnson any more of a household name, or even get him regular gigs after the initial interest died down, sad to say.

At last report, he was living in Atlanta, slated to appear at the upcoming Stomp, of course, and still looking for new recording opportunities, which I hope he can find, because it’s not too late for a comeback, until you can’t come back anymore.

“I Miss You Girl” can also be found on the grapevine CD compilation, Crescent City Soul Patrol, and probably downloads, too, of course.

September 12, 2010

Further Reflections On Shine, Part 2

He could take it a la Ray Charles or a la Big Maybelle, but no matter how he took it he liked it ratty. - Mac Rebennack/Dr. John on Alvin 'Shine' Robinson in Under A Hoodoo Moon

“Ratty”, by the way, was a New Orleans equivalent of the term “funky” back in the day. And I never thought of Shine having a Big Maybelle influence - but it does make some sense.

Mac knew Shine a long time. Both were young guitarists in New Orleans in the late 1950s. Mac led his own bands, hung out around Cosimo's studio, played on sessions when he could, and was soon writing, arranging and producing for Ace and Ric/Ron. Shine played in the House Rockers, led by the colorful Jessie Hill, from 1958 until he joined Joe Jones' band and started recording for Imperial (see Part 1). As a matter of fact, he may have still been with the House Rockers, when they cut Jessie's one big hit, "Ooh Poo Pah Doo", for Minit in 1960. Rebennack knew Hill back then, too (Jessie always claimed to have taught Mac how to sing!). So, the connections ran deep and continued when Mac came to Los Angeles in the mid- 1960s and hooked up again with Jessie, who had been out there for a while working as a songwriter. As Mac relates in his book, he and Hill were soon regularly writing together and started their own publishing company.

Shine came back into the picture later in California, around the making of Mac’s first Dr. John LP, Gris Gris, in 1967. He joined the ragtag group of New Orleans expatriate musicians Mac and Jessie were hanging with, who were working more or less at the fringes of the music industry. Most if not all of them were substance abusers (they were not alone by any means!), junkies and/or hustlers of one stripe or another, living on the edge Hollywood-style. Besides Mac, Jessie, and Shine, the circle included Dave Dixon, Richard 'Didimus' Washington, and Ronnie Barron. Let’s just say they were a talented bunch, but not operating anywhere near the same level as some of the bigger names from New Orleans who had become major players on the scene out West, such as drummer Earl Palmer, sax great Plas Johnson, guitarist Rene Hall, or even a newer-comer, producer/arranger Harold Battiste.

In New Orleans, Battiste had produced sessions for the Specialty label, then started A.F.O. Records with some other like-minded African-American musicians, and had utilized Mac’s talents as a songwriter and musician. When A.F.O. failed financially, Battiste and several of the the owners went West in 1963. He had briefly worked out there before with Sam Cooke for Specialty, and used his connections to get established on the scene. A few years later, when the younger Rebennack showed up at his former boss’ door, a few steps ahead of the law, Battiste helped him get some work to get started.

By 1967, Battiste had become the musical director, arranger and producer (in all but name) for the popular pop show-biz act, Sonny & Cher. In his own fascinating new memoir, Unfinished Blues (highly recommended), he relates that, with Sonny Bono’s backing, he was also attempting to start a new production company; and, as his first project, he wanted to work with Mac, who had an intriguing idea for an experimental concept album. With Battiste’s assistance and encouragement, Mac developed the atmospheric concoction of deep New Orleans cultural roots, wild Mardi Gras abandon, and freaky hoodoo vibes that evolved into
Gris Gris. He decided to adopt the mysterioso Dr. John front man persona himself, after Ronnie Barron’s agent passed on letting Ronnie do it. So, with Rebennack as the main creative force for the sessions, Harold arranged the tunes Mac wrote, co-writing a few of them, and orchestrated the large ensemble they gathered to perform the material. The LP was cut between August and September of 1967, and presented to an unsuspecting and mystified Atlantic Records (Sonny & Cher recorded for their Atco subsidiary) by Battiste, who soon was called in by Ahmet Ertegun to explain what the hell they were supposed to do with it. Rather miraculously, he convinced the big boss to unleash the record on the world unaltered. The late Sixties were definitely a unique time in the music business.

Shine was around for the festivities, having come out from New York at some point prior to the making of
Gris Gris. Battiste confirms in his book that Shine was one of the session participants, though he is not listed in the LP sleeve's cryptic credits. Then, maybe just a few months thereafter, the singer had a studio date himself, cutting his only major label single - for none other than Atco.

I’ve been wondering about how this all went down, as I am pretty certain that Shine’s Atco session took place back in New York, Atlantic Records’ home base. A direct connection between his working on Harold and Mac’s Atlantic project and his own is unclear, since neither of them mention anything about it in their books; but it seems to be more than coincidental. Despite the fact that nothing beyond the basic details about this record are evident, let’s plunge onward through the fog with the few clues I’ve got and get into this really quite impressive single.

“Let Me Down Easy” (Curtis Ousley)
Alvin Robinson, Atco 6581, 1968
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

“Baby Don’t You Do It” (Holland Dozier Holland)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

[Warning - this paragraph is even geekier than usual!] Using the sequential matrix numbers assigned to the sides (13625/13626) and referring to the online Atlantic Records Discography Project and The R&B Indies, I’ve extrapolated a probable recording date for this project of November or early December, 1967. The single was likely released early the next year. The Atlantic discography at has details on many of the company’s sessions, but not all of them; and, of course, Shine’s brief interlude is not included. I’m hoping the new Soul Discography from Eyeball Productions (who brought us The R&B Indies) will have something, if I can ever afford to buy it.

The names on the 45 label get us a bit farther. You’ll note that the arranger of record was Arif Mardin, and the esteemed Tom Dowd produced. That, my friends, was a soul music dream team. Both were working with, among others, Aretha Franklin in this period; and Dowd had been with Atlantic from the early days, recording Ray Charles and numerous R&B greats. The other significant name shown is that of the writer of the deeply soulful top side, “Let Me Down Easy”, Curtis Ousley, a/k/a King Curtis, in demand session saxman and leader of his own popular instrumental group, the Kingpins, who made a lot of records on Atco with Mardin producing, and often backed Aretha Franklin in the studio for Atlantic, as well.

I don’t know if Curtis’ song might have been written for Shine, or if it was something Curtis had done with Ray Charles in mind, but it was certainly right in the singer's wheelhouse - and, though he over-sang it a bit here an there, he belted it out of the park on pure feel alone. If you are going into Charles’ territory, you want the best ride possible; and Shine got it. That’s why am I featuring this down-tempo number for a change. It’s just that good to me.

On the other side, they took Shine into modified Motown mode, covering the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic, “Baby Don’t You Do It”, originally done by Marvin Gaye back in 1964. This upbeat mover has its share of funk in the drumkit pushing Mardin’s compelling, polyrhythmic arrangement. Shine’s energetic delivery punched through with complete authority and certainly more weight than Gaye’s version.

It is quite possible that these sides were recorded in conjunction with a King Curtis session, with Shine coming in to do his vocals backed by that band. Maybe Curtis was a fan of Shine and wanted to give him a shot. But there is another plausible possibility that involves New Orleans trumpeter, Mel Lastie, who played in the Kingpins at the time - maybe he lobbied for Shine.

In all likelihood, Lastie had known Shine since the House Rockers days. He and his brother, David Lastie, had played with Hill in an early version of the band; and David, a sax player, was also a member, as was Shine, when Hill re-grouped around 1958. One of the founders of A.F.O. Records in New Orleans with Battiste, Melvin Lastie re-located to Los Angeles with his partner when the company folded in 1963. Together, they worked on a number of projects out there, including some of the later Sam Cooke records. Then, Lastie left for New York when Joe Jones, who had just made his deal with Leiber & Stoller, hired him to assist with productions on the Dixie Cups and Shine (see Part 1). Lastie soon became well-known and respected around the city’s music scene, and did a lot of session work with Atlantic. So, his connections certainly suggest a conduit for Shine’s Atco hook-up.

However Shine got to make the record, he had an outstanding team backing him; but I doubt he was given any promotional push, not having a deal with the label. Just a one-shot in the dark, the 45 quickly fell through the cracks instead of getting him heard, and so, failed to move him up to the next rung on the tricky ladder of success.

* * * * *
With that bit of unrealized hope behind him, Shine seems to have gone right back out West where he had friends, and other possibilities beckoned. Atlantic had thrown caution to the wind and released
Gris Gris in February of 1968. To the surprise of everyone involved, it began to catch on, being passed hand to hand through the youth culture like a good run of acid. According to Dr. John's account, he suddenly realized that he was going to have to get a band together due to the record’s popularity; and, of course, he enlisted many of his running partners and several other New Orleans players, too.

On his return, Shine became a charter member of the Dr. John revue, formed with his co-conspirators to play the love-ins and happenings of tripped-out hippydom who first embraced the intoxicating, exotic album (and no doubt cleaned their weed on its cover). Besides starting to play live, the group would go back into the studio in 1968 and record the follow-up, Babylon, which was even more musically experimental (and just plain mental) and didn’t hold together nearly as well; but that just endeared them more to their legion of off-the wall fans. Even so, Atlantic held on for four more albums after that; and, over time, Dr. John would endure to become the iconic cultural character he is today, who kept Shine in his road band pretty much regularly until the guitarist and soulful singer passed in 1989.

Gris Gris was beginning to take off, Mac was also involved in a production deal he had fallen into with a new label, Pulsar, which was owned by Mercury. Lacking organizational skills and often strung out, he asked Battiste for assistance. They formed a partnership, HalMac, and began developing artists, material and recording projects for Pulsar. Mac was doing a lot of songwriting for the sessions with Jessie Hill, Shine, and King Floyd. Their secret agenda was to infiltrate the label and turn it into a music operation similar to what the scene in New Orleans had once been; but the trick would soon turn the other way.

While they worked with a lot of what Mac called “lame” pop-rock acts of the era; HalMac also set out to cut records on Floyd, Hill, and Shine. Pulsar’s bosses surprisingly began green-lighting album projects on the artists right away, instead of releasing a few singles first to test the waters. So, Harold and Mac cut an entire LP on King Floyd, A Man In Love, early on, one single with Hill, and also did an album’s worth of material with Shine, most of which was not released at the time. Only two singles on him saw the brief light of day.

The first was “Empty Talk”/“Sho ‘Bout To Drive Me Wild” (#2408). Although the stock copy of the single was credited to Al Robinson, my promo copy (pictured) simply says “Shine”. Red Kelly has featured the latter song, a driving rock groover written by Robinson, Rebennack, Hill, and Floyd, on his B-Side blog, and the audio is still hot on his post. Incidentally, this tune would be covered on the album, Triumvirate, that Dr. John made with John Hammond and Michael Bloomfield in 1973. Hammond sang it; and Dr. John, who did the arrangements on the LP, tricked the tune out to the funky side.

The top side of 3408 was a mid-tempo, bluesy outing with horns, more or less a la Ray Charles, sung well, as usual, by Shine; but, as a tune, it was quite not up to the standards of some of his earlier material. Still, there were a lot of great players involved in the project, as found in the notes to Ace’s Harold Battiste/A.F.O.- related Gumbo Stew CD series, which includes Shine’s released and several unreleased Pulsar sides (I featured one of those in 2007).

Here’s the session list: Mac Rebennack, guitar and piano; Mike Longo, piano, Bob West, bass; Paul Humphries, drums; Jessie Hill, tambourine; Plas Johnson, tenor sax; Herman Riley, baritone sax; Melvin Lastie, trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn; Ike Williams, trumpet; Tami Lynn, vocals.

The one other single that made it out was “Soulful Woman”/“Give Her Up”

“Soulful Woman” (J. Hill-M. Rebennack-A. Robinson)
Al Robinson, Pulsar 2417, 1969
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Shine’s performance, the in-the-pocket playing by pretty much the same cast, and a rollicking arrangement made this unassuming little tune happen. Since Mac is the only guitar player listed in the session credits (though surely Shine played some, too) we’ll give him props for the nice riff running through the song, skipping and doing flips atop Humphries’ funked up drums. Kudos also to Bob West’s pumping and percolatin’ bass, the right, tight horn charts a la Battiste, and, of course, the great Plas Johnson’s soloing - so little doing so much. On top of that, Shine’s vocal just kills. He was all over it from jump and back for sloppy seconds at the end when he let it all hang out. Maybe his loosest, most get-down performance on record.

“Give Her Up”, written by Charlie Julien (a/k/a Jimmy Jules) - more on him coming soon - who also hailed from the Crescent City, continued the pattern of having Shine do a slower side of Charlesian emoting. Nice, but no biggie.

Maybe you noted that Melvin Lastie made these sessions, which further cements my notion that he was an important link to Shine’s earlier Atco release, probably working in conjunction with Battiste. Harold had asked Mel to come out to LA in 1969 and assume some of the workload for the Pulsar projects, since Mac was going out on the road and just becoming increasingly unreliable. According to both the Battiste and Dr. John books, Mac subsequently got busted while out on tour, then mysteriously didn’t check back in with Harold for several months. Turns out he had turned to Sonny & Cher’s shyster managers to bail him out, and they made the desperate new rock star give them a piece of his action in return. One of the first things they did was to void his HalMac partnership with Battiste. So, Harold and Mel went into business together as HalMel; but their big plans for Pulsar soon came crashing down when, out of the blue, the label was summarily dispatched by Mercury. It seems the company had been only running it as a tax write-off and never intended to promote the existing releases or issue what was left in the can. Battiste and Lastie were able to purchase the masters from the company for a mere $5,000, and said good riddance. That is how Shine’s material got onto the
Gumbo Stew compilation - the wise Harold Battiste still has the tapes!

It is a true travesty of talent that Alvin Robinson’s Pulsar sides were his last recordings as a featured artist; but that is how the chips fell. The annals of the music business are filled with tales of injustice, insult and injury. Shine’s setbacks were the collateral damage from a series of business dealings beyond his control, from the sell-off of Imperial, through Leiber & Stoller’s brief fling with running their own shop, to the Pulsar plot; and all served to do his career in bit by bit.

He still had his role as sideman in Dr. John’s band, and made appearances as guitarist on a few more of the LPs, Remedies, Gumbo, plus, later, Hollywood Be Thy Name, where he had this brief live vocal feature (Shine’s on rhythm guitar, with Steve Hunter on lead).

“It’s Alright with Me” (Cole Porter) / “Blue Skies” (I. Berlin)
from Hollywood Be thy Name, UA, 1975
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

In 1972, Shine was involved with Jessie Hill’s near trainwreck of an LP, Naturally, as a co-writer on two tunes, and probably one the many uncredited players. He even did a duet of sorts with Jessie on it, “I Studied Soul”; but the vocals are so covered up by the music that it’s hard to make out (...Duuude, we forgot to do the mix!). The next year, he was on the legendary James Booker sessions at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, which were not released until appearing on CD 30 years later. Shine played some guitar later in the 1970s on Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine album; and his final studio project was as part of the rhythm section on the sessions for Chuck Carbo’s 1989 single, “Second Line On Monday”/“Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On”, and subsequent LP, Life’s Ups And Downs.

Would that he could have shined even more brightly and longer in this life. We’re left to savor what little Shine got left behind. But it’s still plenty righteous enough to be alright with us.

September 04, 2010

Further Reflections On Shine, Part 1

This is the first of a two-part post featuring Alvin ‘Shine’ Robinson. He’s been my subject two times before here (2005 and 2007); and I’ve wanted to do something else on him for way too long. What got me back into it was a tidbit of a scoop I got from Willie West during a recent interview I did with him that should appear on the sleeve of his second 45 for Timmion Records out of Finland. He told me that Rhino will be releasing a new compilation that will include Willie’s own Toussaint-produced “Said To Myself”, and something by Robinson, I’d guess from his one Atco 45, or maybe even an unreleased track. I look forward to finding out.

Inspired by that news, I’ve been poking around the web for any new information on this fine singer/guitarist called Shine, who shuffled off the mortal coil back in 1989 when in his early 50s; but I didn’t find much. So I came back to Red Kelly’s well-done 2008 career overview, which I recommend you refer to as needed (and be sure to look at the Joe Jones Cash Box ad!). In it, Red laments the fact that Shine has never gotten the attention or respect many of us fans think he deserves. His substantial, baritone voice had a genuine, gritty soulfulness to it that could have and should have connected with a lot more listeners, had the breaks gone his way. Of the many idiosyncratic, rough but righteous vocalists who have come out of New Orleans, Shine was certainly one of the most expressive, and always a pleasure to hear.

Probably his biggest and most obvious influence as a performer was Ray Charles; and it cropped up to varying degrees on some of his records. He also has been likened vocally to Chris Kenner; but Shine had better range and control, and didn’t give the impression, at least on record, of perpetual inebriation. Despite the similarities to those others, Shine did have an identifiable sound of his own, though, he didn’t have a chance to fully develop it on record, since he never got to make that many.

His career as a recording artist spanned the 1960s, but was on-again/off-again, beginning in 1961 with a brief run on Imperial. After those sessions, done in New Orleans, he cut all his other sides later on the East or West coasts, although he often recorded with at least some hometown arrangers, producers, and musicians, and managed to keep elements of local flavor in his performances. The high point of his career came mid-decade in New York when he was making singles for labels owned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Yet, there were only five releases total then, and only one of those, his first, had even modest success. It was a subdued, heart-felt cover of Kenner’s “Something You Got”. The best side of the bunch, though, was his brilliant rendition of Leiber and Stoller’s “Down Home Girl” (Red Bird 10-010), written as a funky and humorous New Orleans grinder and arranged to suit by Joe Jones (who billed himself as ‘The Funk Man’). Its lack of sales was and is a really puzzling result for such a cool record. Of course, the Rolling Stones famously covered the tune a year later, and effectively buried Shine’s version. Had he stayed on his home turf down South to record, might he have had more luck, possibly getting to work with Toussaint or Bo? Hard to say, since things didn’t work out that way; but those could have been some potent combinations.

After his stint with Tiger, Red Bird, and Blue Cat, Shine only had a few more 45s issued for other labels. He spent much of his time in the music business, playing the supporting role of a sideman on sessions and in bands, and is perhaps most well-known for his work with Dr. John. Many of his singles (there were no albums) are known today only to collectors, hardcore fans, you music blog lurkers, and YouTube voyeurs. Besides the original vinyl, some of Shine’s re-issued catalog has at various times been available on compilations, or for download. If you don’t have any, seek them out. I’ll be focusing here on a few of the lesser heard sides he made before and after his time with Leiber and Stoller. So, let’s try to shed a bit more light on Shine.

“I’m Leaving You Today”
(G. R. Davis, Jr - H. S. Jones)
Al Robinson. Imperial 5727, 1961
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

With this strong A-side performance, Shine, as Al Robinson, began his recording career. The Ray Charles influence evident in his delivery was certainly supported and encouraged by the punchy arrangement (maybe by Wardell Quezergue, maybe producer Dave Bartholomew) and big horn section. His voice was mixed way out in front, at least on this audition copy; and, interestingly, the instrumentation other than the horns seems to have been just bass and drums, with Smokey Johnson likely playing the syncopated shuffle groove with stop time elements. The relative sparseness of the backing track highlights Shine’s ability to carry the melody with assurance and a casual ease; which is even more impressive for being his debut session as lead vocalist.

Both this and the bluesy B-side ballad,”Pain In My Heart”, that he again steered boldly straight down Ray Charles Boulevard, were co-written by fellow guitarist George Davis and H(erbert) S. Jones, who had some kind of business (and/or family?) relationship with Joe Jones, recording artist, promoter, composer, producer, and bandleader. Shine was working in Jones’ band; and it was probably his boss who got him the shot at recording for Bartholomew, Imperial’s production mainstay in New Orleans, who had been successfully working with, among other greats, mega-seller Fats Domino since the late1940s. At the time, Bartholomew was also recording a host of other local artists such as Frankie Ford, Earl King, Huey Smith and the Clowns, and Snooks Eaglin; most of whom had hits for other labels in the 1950s; but, as good as some of the new sides were, Imperial’s glory days were behind it.

Even with the big guns backing him and propelled by the bounce of Johnson’s hybrid popeye rhythm, which was becoming so popular in the city, “I’m Leaving You Today" did not catch on, its sound perhaps a bit too old school for the new musical times in the Crescent City, with Allen Toussaint leading the charge to unseat Bartholomew as a hit-making songwriting and production powerhouse.

Imperial issued two more Charles-y singles from Shine’s sessions, neither of which fared any better commercially: “I Wanna Know” / “Wake Up (and Face Reality)” (#5762) also from 1961, and “Oh Red” / “The Blues” (#5824 - which also appeared on Post) in 1962. The label was on it’s way out, not promoting its product effectively (if at all), and would soon be sold off to Liberty Records by owner Lew Chudd. Back in the late 1980s, a number of Shine’s unissued recordings for Bartholomew turned up on the Charly LP compilation,
Shine On. Here’s one of the more upbeat numbers.

“Lazy Mary”
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

No songwriting credit appears for this song on the LP; but it sounds like something from Bartholomew; but, like "Oh Red", it also reminds me a bit of Chris Kenner’s 1957 Imperial classic, “Sick and Tired”. That is likely what they were going for. By the way, I think Bartholomew was part of the duo singing backup, as well. John Broven’s notes on the album cover credit Smokey Johnson with the second-line, parade-inspired drumming here - and I can roll with that.

Working with a fairly simple tune and arrangement with a strong New Orleans feel, Shine dug in with enthusiasm. This would have been a good track for release and seems like it could have been commercially competitive at the time; but it wasn’t to be.

In 1964, Shine left for New York City along with a couple of vocal groups, once of which was the female trio that would soon become the Dixie Cups, manger/promoter Joe Jones and the rest of the band. Jones had made a previous trip up and approached famed songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were branching out into production and their own labels, about recording his artists. When they heard the demo tapes, they jumped at the chance, signed them, and hired the band to back them up, and Jones to do production and promotion. It was essentially a transplanted New Orleans operation. Quite a few of the songs used on the Dixie Cups sessions that were not by Leiber and Stoller’s team of writers were Earl King compositions. James Black was the session drumer, at least for a while, until he moved into the far more challenging jazz world; and Wardell Quezergue was brought up to do some arranging. The Dixie Cups had a number of substantial hits for Red Bird, including the #1 “Chapel Of Love”, plus a couple of albums; but Shine, as discussed, did not fare nearly as well in the marketplace; and, by 1965, his luck had run out. For more details on his records of the period, check out Larry Grogan’s discussion at Funky 16 Corners, and you can hear a few more of them at the links below*.

When by 1965/1966 no new record deal was forthcoming, Jones, still Shine’s manager and producer, took it upon himself to get material together and cut another single on the singer, pretty much continuing the sound he had developed for Leiber and Stoller. The result was issued as a one-off single on the very short-lived Joe Jones Records.

”Whatever You Had You Aint’ Got It No More” (Joe Jones - Marylin Jones)
Alvin Robinson, Joe Jones 1, 1966
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Despite the merits of the performance Shine pulled off here, the song was “Something You Got” in slow-motion with a variant melody and re-written lyrics, turning it into a kiss-off. The horn lines weren’t even changed. That he managed to make the rehashed words and warmed-over arrangement riveting says all that needs to be said about the talent of Shine Robinson.

“You Brought My Heart Right Down to My Knees” (Joe Jones - Carl Hogan)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

The B-side was musically a much brighter picture and a fresh change of pace - up to mid-tempo, at least - and elicited another worthy vocal from Shine in which he went up into his falsetto several times to great effect, including on the attention-grabbing intro. The popeye style groove was straight out of the New Orleans playbook, with the unknown drummer giving it an authentic stuttering syncopation and bounce, leading me to believe he was recruited from back home, might even have been Smokey Johnson.

Of course, I am assuming this was all done in NYC, since the label displayed Jones’ business address there; and I have no evidence otherwise. Jones was probably hoping to get some label with national distribution to pick this single up; but when that didn't happen, Shine's career went cold(er) for a few years.

Anyway, this song has a great feel and gives such a fine ride, still enjoyable after repeated plays. It's one of those endorphin-producing B-side finds that keeps us digging for rare, obscure records in search the next hit in the alternate universes of our dreams....

Next time, I’ll get to Shine’s one other major label record, a winner that again nobody heard, and speculate on how he got to make it. Then I’ll finish off with another track from his work with Harold Batiste and Mac Rebennack out in California at the end of the 60s.

Soon come.

*More Shine via YouTube:
"I'm Gonna Put Some Hurt On You"